Seven-year itch

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Mark Blundell will return to racing this summer in an Audi R8 GT3 at the Spa 24 Hours. Understandably, after so long away from competition, he’s been keen to get in some practice laps…
By Ed Foster

He’s been away from the sport for seven years, but it’s official: Mark Blundell is back. The youngest person ever to get pole position at the Le Mans 24 Hours has signed up to race an Audi R8 GT3 at the Spa 24 Hours on July 31/August 1 alongside Eddie Cheever, with fellow Grand Prix ‘old boy’ Stefan Johansson joining them in a sister car. Quite a line-up.

Blundell’s last competitive outing was at Le Mans in 2003 aboard the Bentley Speed 8 when he finished second overall. Over the past seven years the ex-McLaren, Tyrrell, Brabham and Ligier driver has graced your TV screens via ITV’s F1 coverage and has set up a management company, 2MB Sports Management (2MB for himself and, originally, Martin Brundle), which now looks after Mercedes DTM driver Gary Paffett and Indycar driver Mike Conway.

The decision to get back in a race car wasn’t a difficult one, Blundell tells me. “The idea has been floating around in my mind for 12 months or so, but really there just hasn’t been time,” he says. “Now that my management company isn’t so time-consuming, though, it seems like a good time to do it.”

So is this a comeback, the start of a full programme and perhaps even a return to Le Mans, the track where the then 24-year-old made the headlines in 1990? “I’m 44 years old, so I’m not exactly over the hill yet,” says Blundell. “I never said I was retiring, I just dropped out of the scene and the last time I drove I was pretty OK.

“If something came along that’s got some structure to it and it’s a proper programme, then yes, I’d look at it seriously. There has to be a level of commitment, there has to be a level of professionalism and there’s got to be enough time available to run the business side of things [at 2MB Sports Management].

“If I’m totally honest with you, if it’s a case of getting back to 11st 7lb again and looking like a noodle it isn’t going to happen. I can tell you that now. If it’s something that requires me to get back into reasonable shape, however, then I can look at that. Having said that, like all competitive ex-racers if I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it properly.”

Even with a name like Mark Blundell it’s not easy to find a professional seat in a good car after so long away from racing. But at United Autosports, the team running the R8 GT3 at Spa, both Richard Dean and Zak Brown, who will share the drive with Mark and Eddie, are fully aware of how fast Blundell was, and still is. Dean, the managing director and part-owner of United Autosports, raced against him in Formula Fords in 1985, while Brown, the team’s chairman and co-owner, is a longtime friend.

“This whole idea came about through my friendship with Zak. That and he also felt, in his infinite wisdom, that it would be good fun to have some old-timers like me in the car,” says Blundell. “It’s a great opportunity, and I’m very thankful, but one of the first things we discussed was that I wanted to do some testing. I’m no good to anybody if I can’t understand what’s going on with the car, and I wouldn’t want to go and do something if I couldn’t contribute to it. So the opportunity to test was a big factor.”

It’s because of this that we find ourselves at a windy Silverstone. It’s the first time Blundell has driven the car – any racing car in fact – for a while: “I had a few problems finding a helmet. I eventually dug this one out that had ‘2003’ written on it. ‘That’ll be about right’ I thought.”

After an initial briefing from Dean about the car’s controls, Blundell eases the R8 out of the Stowe circuit pits and onto the twisty 1.2-mile track. I ask whether they’re taking lap times. “He definitely doesn’t need any encouragement,” replies Dean. Within two laps Blundell is on it, prompting one of the mechanics to comment: “He’s not shy, is he?” Shy he is not, and within another couple of laps Blundell is whipping up the dust on the edge of the track.

“The car’s nice, it gives you a bit of feedback on what it’s going to do,” he says once back in the pits. “It’s great fun, it’s just a little too much hard work. Can we move the race back to September?” The R8 is nowhere near as physical as some of the machinery Blundell has driven in the past, but his break from the sport makes a busy little circuit like this quite demanding.

Once Blundell has cooled down, it’s time to find out exactly what he thinks about Audi’s new – and very successful – customer racer. “It was a bit of a baptism of fire – I’ve not driven the car, nor the track, but at the same time my biggest challenge is that I haven’t been in a car full stop. So really I’m just acclimatising.” Blundell adds something about “blowing out the cobwebs”, a remark that makes some of the mechanics go a little wide-eyed. “Well, you blew them out pretty bloody quickly,” says one.

“I’m pleasantly surprised,” adds Mark. “I thought the car would be less user-friendly than it is, but it’s balanced, there’s sufficient grip – probably more than I thought there would be. Most importantly, the car’s responsive. It sounds stupid, but if you can jump in a car and get a good response from doing all the basics like using the throttle and the steering wheel, you’re halfway there. You’ve got something to work with, a base to start from.

“You can see why these R8s have been so popular because they’re a great entry into full-blown sports car racing. It’s mild, but at the same time aggressive. It’s an accomplished racing car in its own right and a very good grounding for someone who wants to eventually get into an LMP1 car or something that has big downforce.

“Of course, this is far off an LMP machine because you’re then in aerodynamic territory with big venturi tunnels. The trick with a car like this is to marry up the mechanical grip and what aero is available and extract everything from it.”

One of the problems Blundell faces today is that the tyres on the R8 have done the whole of the Silverstone GT3 weekend, including qualifying and the race. United Autosports is keen to impart this information on him as he’s already thinking of ways to improve the car. “If I was being difficult I’d say it was too loose, because when you start pushing, the front washes out,” says Blundell.

“The tyres are fairly bollocks, to be quite honest with you,” he’s told.

Ignoring this, he carries on: “At the moment you can’t lean on it. I could hustle it through the chicane quicker, but it won’t hold – you can set it up and throw it in, but you just can’t rely on it.”

The questions to the mechanics start coming thick and fast. “Can you stiffen the rear roll bar? Will that throw some more front end into it? I had a play around with the ABS, but it didn’t seem to change much – what setting do they usually have it on?” He may have been away for seven years, but Blundell is still very much a racer.

Soon it’s time to get back on track. “I was just wondering, are there any better tyres, and also, does that lap timer work on the dash? No? That’s probably a good thing, I don’t want to get too racey…”

The customer R8s have been a great success. So much so that last year – their first on the grid – Christophers Haase and Mies won the FIA GT3 championship in one. No one could quite believe that a manufacturer, even one with Audi’s history of success, could come in and succeed like that, so this year all the R8s have been hit hard with penalties. A new ECU has reduced revs in each gear by 1000rpm, the power has consequently been cut by 25/30bhp and 20kg of weight has been added to each car. The result? The highest placed Audi at the Silverstone round was eighth.

“I was trying everything to get some of the penalties taken off last weekend,” says Dean. “I even tried crying, going by the rationale that no one likes seeing a grown man cry. Hopefully we’ll get it sorted soon because then Mark can go to Spa with the ballast off and the revs and power back.”

Even with the penalties removed, could Blundell really be just as useful behind the wheel? “It’s like riding a bike for him, isn’t it?” says Dean. “I’m certainly not worried that he’s been away for so long, because he knows better than anyone what he needs to do in terms of fitness for a 24-hour race. You can either do it or you can’t, and he can.”

United Autosports is an American team with three American drivers. But it is based in West Yorkshire and many of the team members are British. “It’s good to have Mark in the team because he’s British, which certainly helps,” says Dean. “He’s one of those drivers who the engineers and mechanics love because he’s not a prima donna. He gets in, he gets on with it and he’s good. You know he’s going to get the best out of the car and that he’s going to give it 100 per cent.”

Although United Autosports’ immediate concerns are the Audi’s ballast, revs and power, Dean is looking at making the move to GT1 sooner rather than later. “Last weekend we were in the GT3 paddock here and we’re pleased to be there. But I looked at the GT1 paddock and it’s nice to think we’ll be there in maybe two or three seasons. I’d love to do a world series.

“Right now, we’re very happy with Audi, but currently it doesn’t have a GT1 car [GT3 sits better with its customer car programme]. We’ll have to wait and see what happens. Audi customer support in GT3 is a new project for them and we want to be central to that, so I think we’ve got a three-year view on GT3, but that doesn’t mean to say GT1 couldn’t come in during that period. We would continue to do GT3 as well, but in a year or two, if the sponsors, car and manufacturer are all in place, why not GT1?”

Back to more immediate concerns; Blundell has his work cut out at Spa. He won’t have to be shaped “like a noodle” to last 24 hours, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be able to do it without any training. However, endurance racing isn’t all about one man and lap times. So how is he going to cope with Eddie Cheever as a team-mate? “Eddie’s the next generation on from me, so it’s good to have someone older around,” he jokes. “Seriously, I’m really excited about driving with Eddie as he’s a big name with a lot of heritage along with a huge amount of experience and knowledge. It’s great that we’ve got some names coming back to the Spa 24 Hours. OK, maybe they are from yesteryear, but that’s not a bad formula. The good news is that I’ll only be driving from two o’clock until seven in the evening and then Eddie’s doing seven until 4am. He just doesn’t know it yet…

“When you’re a young driver treading a set path to get to the pinnacle of the sport, a lot of these events you don’t get to do as they’re not one of the chosen races. There are some key events around the world that would be great to compete in, and this will tick the box for sure.”

Blundell and United Autosports will be heading to Spa soon to have a formal test in preparation for the 24 Hours. No doubt there will be fresh tyres and the lap timer on the dashboard will be working by then as Mark gets properly settled in the car.

What can we expect from Blundell, Cheever, Dean and Brown when it comes to the race? Is a podium finish too much to ask? “I think as you get a little older and a little wiser you start to take things as they come,” says Blundell. “That’s me saying that if I can enjoy the experience with some good guys in the car, then that’s great.

“This race is about enjoying myself and if we can be successful then that’s the icing on the cake. Actually, if I’m not successful then I’ll be really pissed off.”

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